Philosophy after the Holocaust

The sustained, extended atrocities of the twentieth century — the genocide of the Holocaust, the Holodomor, totalitarian repression, the Gulag, the Armenian genocide, the rape of Nanjing — require new questions and new approaches to the problems of philosophy. What are some of those new questions and insights that philosophers should take up? How can philosophy change its focus in order to better recognize and address the evils of the twentieth century?

If philosophy matters at all, its importance derives from the honest efforts of philosophers over the past millennia to answer fundamental questions about the good of a human life and the nature of a good society. Philosophy is about values and the prospects for a peaceful, free future for all of humanity. Its most basic problems have to do with how we human beings create meaning and values for ourselves, and how we can create structures of social life that permit the unfolding of the freedoms and capabilities of each of us. The evils of the twentieth century demonstrated that there are dark alternatives that can be realized in history on the largest scale imaginable: mass killing, enslavement, dehumanization, degradation, and totalitarian subordination of whole peoples. How can philosophy address these terrible realities? How can philosophy contribute to humanity’s ability to prevent those atrocious outcomes in the future?

First, philosophy must be engaged in the realities of human life and history. There is an urgent need for greater concreteness and historical specificity in philosophical discussions in ethics, social and political philosophy, and the philosophy of history. Philosophy can become more genuinely insightful by becoming more concrete and historical. One way to achieve this specificity is to include study and reflection about the first-person documents deriving from participants’ experience. Philosophers are inclined to couch their ideas at a high level of generality. But understanding the evils of the Holocaust requires us to find ways of making even better use of these first-hand experiential sources, without the suspicion of “bias” that often hampered previous historical uses of them. Survivors’ testimonies and interviews, travelers’ reports, and other first-person statements of what happened to individual people must be treated with seriousness, compassion, and a critical eye. Piecing together a single incident on the basis of a few hundred survivors’ reports turns out to be extremely difficult (Christopher Browning). And yet without the reports of participants, survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators, it is virtually impossible to come to a deep human understanding of the realities of the experience of roundups of Jews in Berdichev or daily life and death in Treblinka. A crucial part of the learning we need to do from the Holocaust or the Holodomor is to gain the painful understanding of the individual human suffering experienced by each individual, in the tens of millions. This suggests the relevance of “phenomenological” and descriptive approaches to human life circumstances, informed by real historical understanding of the concrete and lived experience of participants.

Second, it is plain that the scope of events like the Holocaust requires new thinking about historical knowledge. The topic is enormous, encompassing world war, a totalitarian state, organized murder in dozens of countries, a pervasive and varied ideology of hate, and associated violence and murder by affiliates and collaborators throughout a vast region. Specialized historical research is needed into a vast range of topics and locations — for example, Ukrainian nationalist collaborators, the command structure of Einsatzgruppen, the role of Krupp and Farben in the genocide of Europe’s Jews. All of these specialized investigations are crucial to a broad collective understanding of this continent-wide catastrophe. And yet they contribute to a patchwork of areas of understanding of the Holocaust, distributed over hundreds of journals, monographs, and institutes. A historian who specializes in the genocide against Ukraine’s Jews may know little or nothing about the circumstances of the extinction of Hungary’s Jews in 1944. There is thus a critical role for historical synthesis at a higher level of scope – like the work of Timothy Snyder and Alexander Prusin – that helps to knit together factors that would otherwise seem separate.

Third, there are the familiar questions of explanation that must be confronted by historians and philosophers concerning the Holocaust, on a vast scale. What were the political, social, and ideological causes of Germany’s genocidal intentions? What were the features of organization and control through which these intentions were brought to implementation in such ferocity and persistence across Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states in just a few months in 1941? It is crucial to maintain an understanding of the “ conjunctural and multi-causal” nature of large episodes like the Holocaust, and historians should be cautious about simple, single-factor explanations.

Similarly, there are questions of understanding of human actions during these evil times. What were the political and ideological circumstances that led ordinary central European men and women to engage in murder and torture against their Jewish neighbors? How can we understand this mentality and these choices? What were the states of mind of senior military officers in the Wehrmacht who carried out genocidal orders? What about the ordinary soldiers who were sometimes called upon to commit murder against the innocent? How can we understand these actions?

Fifth, philosophy is forced to reconsider common assumptions about human nature, morality, benevolence, and rationality that have often guided philosophical thinking. The simple assumptions of the social contract tradition – whether minimalist in the hands of Hobbes or more nuanced in the hands of Rousseau – do not suffice as a basis for understanding real human history. It is true that sociality, a love of freedom, and a degree of benevolence can be discerned in human affairs; but so can cruelty, hatred, betrayal, and irrationality. It is inescapable that human beings are neither wild animals nor benevolent and rational citizens. Instead, it is important to follow out Herder’s ideas about the contingency of culture and values, and reconstruct more nuanced understandings of human nature in specific historical and social settings (link).

Philosophy for a democratic people

These points have to do with understanding the past, in the aim of preparing for a better future. But understanding the present is also a crucial task — both for philosophers and for citizens. Philosophy needs to help citizens in a democracy to diagnose the malevolent tendencies of hatred and authoritarianism as they emerge, rather than after they have come to full fruition. And philosophy needs to provide citizens with the habits of mind of engagement and motivation that permit them to resist those tendencies while resistance is still feasible. If the common human impulses of “looking the other way” and remaining passive guide our behavior when authoritarianism and hatred emerge, it will be too late to oppose those tendencies once they have seized states and political movements. Hungary’s citizens have been silent too long for the health of their democracy. If Donald Trump had been swiftly removed from office through impeachment and conviction following the January 6 insurrection based on a bipartisan consensus, think about how much more secure democracy in the United States would be today.

In the year 2022 citizens in western democracies have two highly sobering examples before them that need their attention. First is the plain and determined effort by former president Donald Trump to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election and to subvert the institutions and laws that surround the election process in order to do so. The investigations undertaken by the House January 6 committee make it clear that Trump’s efforts, and the concerted and organized efforts of his supporters, amounted to an attempted coup against American democracy. The democracy of the United States was at its greatest risk since the American Civil War.

The second example from 2022 is even more terrible: the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine in February, 2022, and the atrocious war against innocent civilians that has ensued. Russian forces have tortured and mutilated civilians, executed civilians, targeted hospitals and sanctuaries with artillery and bomb attacks, and have sent untold thousands of civilians to “filtration camps” in Ukraine and Russia. All of these tactics are war crimes over and above the war crime of conducting aggressive war against a neighboring country (link). International institutions like the United Nations have been powerless in opposing this war of aggression, while the European and North American military alliance NATO has provided substantial support to Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. The devastation that Ukraine and its citizens face is comparable to the harm it suffered from Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1943. This event underlines the continuing potential of totalitarian regimes to undertake atrocities against the innocent.

The first example illustrates that democracies are vulnerable to attack by unscrupulous political leaders and their loyal and sometimes violent followers. Democratic political institutions are not a guarantee against seizure of power by anti-democratic political forces and leaders. Further, there is a growing level of ideological support from “ordinary people” for the anti-democratic and racist political appeals of political leaders inspired by Trump, and there is a growing network of violent individuals and organizations who are prepared to use force against the state and against their fellow citizens to achieve their ends. Equally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine illustrates the point that authoritarian dictatorships wield substantial power and capacity to impose suffering on other populations. The potential for evil persists in contemporary societies.

But there is an even more fundamental lesson to learn, about the need for public activism and civic engagement in support of democratic institutions. (That is the motivation for the image at the top of groups demanding legislation supporting gun safety.) We citizens in democracies need to be much better prepared to defend our institutions and our values, if the forces of hate and extremism are not to prevail. Democracy is not just about voting in elections; it is about engaging in peaceful mobilization and protest in support of democratic values, and against the efforts of the extremist right to dismantle our institutions.

Philosophy needs to be engaged in the world we face, and to actively contribute to preserving our democratic values. It is crucial for philosophers themselves to recognize that the atrocities of the twentieth century represented a singular moment in human history: a moment when states, parties, leaders, and ordinary citizens engaged in monstrous crimes, and a moment that must be confronted if those crimes are not to recur in the future. Philosophy must find fruitful ways of contributing to that dialogue. Is philosophy up to the task, or are philosophers forced to retreat to the study and consider only the most abstract and universal problems that have so often defined the field?

Herder’s philosophy of history and humanity

An earlier post attempted to express the idea that “humanity” and human culture are self-creators: there is no fixed and prior system of meanings, values, allegiances, and ways of acting that constitutes humanity. Instead, human beings have, through the history of millennia of culture formation, created frameworks of value, meaning, and social relationships that have structured human communities and individual lives in different epochs. This view can be described as “historicist”, in the sense that it places human nature and human values into contingent historical traces. 

Human beings bring something crucial to this epochs-long process that other living organisms do not (ants, rabbits, lions): a capacity for thinking, experiencing, reflecting, and feeling that leads them to adjust their value systems over time. Through ordinary experience, human relationships of love and hate, poetry and religion, philosophy and story telling, human communities shape their values over time. And sometimes there are revolutions of thought in which profound changes ripple through the value systems and systems of meaning of various human communities.

In reflecting on the history of western philosophy to identify thinkers who have advocated for ideas like these to explain the history of humanity, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) stands out. He stands in contrast to his teacher Kant, but also to the British empiricists and to Platonic philosophy, in his strong philosophical conviction that human beings are fundamentally historical creatures. And in Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions Martha Nussbaum suggests that Rousseau offers a similar view in Emile (link). Michael Forster puts this feature of Herder’s philosophy at the center of his philosophy of history (SEP, Herder):

His most intrinsically important achievement arguably rather lies in his development of the thesis already mentioned earlier—contradicting such Enlightenment philosopher-historians as Hume and Voltaire—that there exist radical mental differences between different historical periods (and cultures), that people’s concepts, beliefs, values, sensations, and so on differ in deep ways from one period (or culture) to another. This thesis is already prominent in On the Change of Taste (1766) and it lasts throughout Herder’s career. It had an enormous influence on successors such as the Schlegel brothers, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dilthey. (Forster, SEP, Herder)

Herder makes the empirical exploration of the realm of mental diversity that this thesis posits the very core of the discipline of history. For, as has often been noted, he takes relatively little interest in the so-called “great” political and military deeds and events of history, focusing instead on the “innerness” of history’s participants. This choice is quite deliberate and self-conscious. Because of it, psychology and interpretation inevitably take center-stage as methods in the discipline of historiography for Herder. (Forster, SEP, Herder)

One way of interpreting this philosophy of history is as a developmental conception of civilization: human history is a sequence of civilizational systems that give way to their successors, with the suggestion that there is a direction or teleological structure to this sequence. That is the way that Hegel’s philosophy of history works: great historical epochs (civilizations) represent partial and one-sided ideas of freedom, to be superseded by complementary ideas in future epochs. 

But we can adopt the historicist view of human culture without any commitment whatsoever to directionality, progress, or unified movement. Instead, we can look at the process as contingent, path-dependent, and heterogeneous at any given moment in time.

Here are suggestive excerpts from Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (link). Here is a very clear statement on the transitory nature of human cultural, civilizational monuments:

Thus everything in history is transient: the inscription on her temple is evanescence and decay. We tread on the ashes of our forefathers, and stalk over the entombed ruins of human institutions and kingdoms. Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, flit before us like shadows: like ghosts they rise from their graves, and appear to us in the field of history. (Book XV)

And here is an especially clear passage commenting on the “self-creation” of human beings:

Thus we everywhere find mankind possessing and exercising the right of forming themselves to a kind of humanity, as soon as they have discerned it. If they have erred, or stopped at the half way of a hereditary tradition; they have suffered the consequences of their error, and done penance for the fault they committed. The deity has in nowise bound their hands, farther than by what they were, by time, place, and their intrinsic powers. When they were guilty of faults, he extricated them not by miracles, but suffered these faults to produce their effects, that man might the better learn to know them. (Book XV, Chapter 1)

This line of thought about human beings, civilization, and history is historicist in a particular sense: human beings create themselves through actions and the process of living, using their consciousness as a way of attempting to understand and guide their actions. Human beings take shape through their histories. From this process emerge culture, norms, and ways of living.

Georg Iggers provides a helpful account of the meaning of “historicism” in his 1995 article, “Historicism: The History and Meaning of the Term” (link). And in his telling, only one of the several meanings this term has had in the past two centuries is relevant to my intended use in application to Herder. The meaning that I have in mind is synonymous with the idea of the “self-creation” of human cultures: no Ur-text of human values at the beginning, no necessary path of development, no uniform and homogeneous “world culture” at any point. Instead, there is only humanity, in the persons of specific communities and populations; and the systems of values their poets, philosophers, preachers, and fanatics have proliferated during a period of time. There is diffusion, dispersion, cross-fertilization, innovation, and back-tracking, as living human beings and their poets struggle forward in cooperation and competition in changing circumstances of nature, society, and technology. Sometimes communities emerge with what we would describe as deplorable values; and sometimes there are long stretches of time in which value systems prevail that support benevolence, fairness, and concern for others.

As Iggers points out, one of the criticisms of historicism was its supposed “relativism” — the idea that it implies that all moral and religious belief derives from a community’s social and natural circumstances, and that no moral or religious scheme is superior to any other. In a sense this conclusion follows from the view that there is no objective, rational, and extra-historical standard for comparing and judging competing moral systems in concrete human communities. But we can also take the view of “self-creation” very seriously, and can maintain that the struggle to live across time in typical human circumstances has resulted, for us, in a system of values that we can both endorse and continue to criticize and correct. We prefer to be beings who have compassion for each other and who treat other human beings fairly; therefore a moral system that favors benevolence, compassion, and justice is superior to one that favors cruelty, indifference, and exploitation. We are now the kinds of creatures who have defined ourselves partially in terms of those values; and we can judge ourselves, our ancestors, and our fellow human beings accordingly. There is no external “epistemic” basis for these values; rather, they are values we and our predecessors have created for ourselves; we have become (partially) the embodiment of those values. And when Klingons, Nazis, or NKVD officers fundamentally violate those values, we must oppose them if we can.

Sonia Sikka’s Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference: Enlightened Relativism is an excellent and detailed discussion of this aspect of Herder’s philosophy.

Evil and the philosophy of history

images: Two residents of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad)

Vast numbers of words have been written about the atrocities of the twentieth century — about the Holocaust, about Stalin’s war of starvation against Ukraine’s peasants, about the Gulag, and about other periods of unimaginable and deliberate mass suffering throughout the century. First-person accounts, historians’ narratives, sociologists’ and psychologists’ studies of perpetrators’ behavior, novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights, exhibition curators … all of these kinds of works are available to us as vehicles for understanding what happened, and — perhaps — why. So perhaps, we might agree with Zygmunt Bauman in an early stage of his development and judge that the job has been done: we know what we need to know about the terrible twentieth century.

I do not agree with that view. I believe another perspective will be helpful — even necessary — if we are to encompass this century of horror into our understanding of our human past and be prepared for a better future. This is the perspective of the philosopher — in particular, the philosopher of history. But why so? Why is it urgent for philosophy to confront the Holocaust? And what insight can philosophers bring to the rest of us about the particular evils that the twentieth century involved?

Let’s begin with the question, why does philosophy need to confront the Holocaust? Here there seem to be at least two important reasons. First, philosophy is almost always about rationality and the good. Philosophers want to know what conditions constitute a happy human life, a just state, and a harmonious society. And we usually work on assumptions that lead, eventually, back to the idea of human rationality and a degree of benevolence. Human beings are deliberative about their own lives and courses of action; they want to live in a harmonious society; they are capable of recognizing “fair” social arrangements and institutions, and have some degree of motivation to support such institutions. These assumptions attach especially strongly to philosophers such as Aristotle, Seneca, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel; less strongly to Hobbes and Nietzsche; and perhaps not at all to Heidegger. But there is a strong and recurrent theme of rationality and benevolence that underlies much of the tradition of Western philosophy. The facts about the Holocaust — or the Holodomor, or the Armenian genocide, or Rwanda — do not conform to this assumption of rational human goodness. Rather, rationality and benevolence fall apart; instrumental rationality is divorced from a common attachment to the human good, and rational means are chosen to bring about suffering, enslavement, and death to millions of individual human beings. The Holocaust, then, forces philosophers to ask themselves: what is a human being, if groups of human beings are capable of such destruction and murder of their fellows?

The two ideas highlighted here — rationality and benevolence — need some further explication. Philosophers are not economists; they do not and have not thought of rationality as purely a matter of instrumental cleverness in fitting means to achieving one’s ends. Rather, much of our tradition of philosophy has a more substantive understanding of rationality: to be rational is, among other things, to recognize the reality of other human beings; to recognize the reality of their aspirations and vulnerabilities; and to have a degree of motivation to contribute to their thriving. Thomas Nagel describes this view of rationality in The Possibility of Altruism; but likewise, Amartya Sen embraces a conception of reason that includes sociality and a recognition of the reality of other human beings.

Benevolence too requires comment. Benevolence — or what Nagel refers to as altruism — is a rational motivation that derives from a recognition of the reality of other people’s life — their life plans, their happiness and suffering, their fulfillment. To be benevolent is to have a degree of motivation to care about the lives of others, and to contribute to social arrangements that serve everyone to some degree. As Kant puts the point in one version of the categorical imperative in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, “treat others as ends, not merely as means”. And the point of this principle is fundamental: rationality requires recognition of the fundamental reality of the lives, experiences, and fulfillment of others. Benevolence does not mean that one must become Alyosha in the Brothers Karamazov, selflessly devoted to the needs of others. But it does mean that the happiness and misery, life and death, of the other is important to oneself. Nagel puts the point very strongly: strict egoism is as irrational as solipsism.

But here is the crucial point: the anti-Semitism of the Nazi period, the dehumanization of Jews, the deliberate and rational plan to exterminate the Jews from all of Europe, and the racism of European colonialism — all of this is fundamentally incompatible with the idea that human beings are invariably and by their nature “rationally benevolent”. Ordinary German policemen were indeed willing to kill Jews at the instruction of their superiors, and then enjoy the evening singing beer songs with their friends. Ordinary Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were prepared to serve as policemen, carrying out Nazi plans for Aktion against thousands of other residents of the ghetto. Ordinary Poles were willing to assault and kill their neighbors. Ordinary French citizens were willing to betray their Jewish neighbors. How can philosophy come to grips with these basic facts from the twentieth century?

The second reason that philosophy needs to be ready to confront the facts of the twentieth century honestly is a bit more constructive. Perhaps philosophy has some of the resources needed to construct a better vision of the world for the future, that will make the ideal of a society of rationally benevolent citizens more feasible and stable. Perhaps, by once recognizing the terrible traps that Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and Soviet citizens were led into, social and political philosophy can modestly contribution to a vision of a more stable future in which genocide, enslavement, and extermination are no longer possible. Perhaps there is a constructive role for political and social philosophy 2.0.

And there is another side of this coin: perhaps the history of philosophy is itself interspersed with a philosophical anthropology that perpetuated racism and anti-Semitism — and thereby contributed to the evils of the twentieth century. This is an argument made in detail by Michael Mack in German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses, who finds that negative assumptions about Jews come into Kant’s writings in a very deep way: Jews are “heteronomous”, whereas ethical life requires “autonomy”. These statements are anti-Semitic on their face, and Mack argues that they are not simply superficial prejudices of the age, but rather are premises that Kant is happy to argue for. Bernard Boxill makes similar claims about Kant’s moral philosophy when it comes to racism. Boxill believes that Kant’s deep philosophical assumptions within his philosophical anthropology lead him to a position that is committed to racial hierarchies among human beings (“Kantian Racism and Kantian Teleology”; link). These concerns show that philosophy needs to be self-critical; we need to ask about some of the sources of twentieth-century evil that are embedded in the tradition of philosophy itself. Slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, gender oppression, colonial rule, and violence against colonial subjects all seem to have cognates within the traditions of philosophy. (In an important article that warrants careful reading, Laurie Shrage raises important questions about the social context and content of American philosophy — and the discipline’s reluctance to engage in its social presuppositions; “Will Philosophers Study Their History, Or Become History?” (link). She writes, “By understanding the history of our field as a social and cultural phenomenon, and not as a set of ideas that transcend their human contexts, we will be in a better position to set a future course for our discipline”(125).)

There is a yet another reason why philosophy needs to engage seriously with evil in the twentieth century: philosophy is meant to matter in human life. The hope for philosophy, offered by Socrates and Seneca, Hume and Kant, is that the explorations of philosophers can contribute to better lives and greater human fulfillment. But this suggests that philosophy has a duty to engage with the most difficult challenges in human life, throughout history, and to do so in ways that help to clarify and enhance human values. The evils of the twentieth century create an enormous problem of understanding for every thoughtful person. This is not primarily a theological challenge — “How could a benevolent deity permit such atrocities?” — but rather a philosophical challenge — “How can we as full human beings, with our moral and imaginative capacities, confront these evils honestly, and have hope for the future?”. If philosophy cannot contribute to answering this question, then perhaps it is no longer needed. (This is the subtext of Shrage’s concerns in the article mentioned above.)

I’d like to position this question within the philosophy of history. The Holocaust and the Holodomor are events of history, after all, and history seeks to understand the past. And our understanding of history is also our understanding of our own humanity. But if this question belongs there, it suggests a rather different view of the philosophy of history than either analytic or hermeneutic philosophers have generally taken. Analytic philosophers — myself included — have generally approached the topic of the philosophy of history from an epistemological point of view: what can we know about the past, and how? And hermeneutic philosophers (as well as speculative and theological philosophers) have offered large theories of “history” (“Does history have meaning?” “Does history have direction?”) that have little to do with the concrete understandings that we need to gain from specific historical investigations. So the philosophy of history that considers the conundrum of the Holocaust and the pervasive footprint of evil in the twentieth century will need to be one that incorporates the best thinking by gifted historians, as well as reflective deliberation about circumstances of the human condition that made these horrible historical outcomes possible. It must join philosophy and history. But it is possible, I hope, that philosophers can help to formulate new questions and new perspectives on the great evils of the twentieth century, and assist global society in moving towards a more harmonious and morally acceptable world.

One additional point is relevant here: the pernicious role that all-encompassing ideologies have played in the previous century. And, regrettably, philosophy often gives rise to such ideologies. Both Stalinism and Nazism were driven by totalizing ideologies, subordinating ordinary human beings for “the attainment of true socialism” or “Lebensraum and racial purity”. And these ideologies succeeded in bringing along vast numbers of followers, leading to political ascendancy of totalitarian parties and leaders. The odious slogan, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, led to horrific sacrifices in the Soviet Empire and in China; and the willingness to subordinate the whole population to the will of the Leader led to the evils of the Nazi regime. Whatever philosophy can usefully contribute in the coming century, it cannot be a totalizing theory of “the perfect society”. It must involve a fundamental commitment to the moral importance and equality of all human beings and to democracy in collective decision-making. A decent human future can only be made piecemeal, not according to a comprehensive blueprint. The future must be made by ordinary human beings, not ideologues, revolutionaries, or philosophers. 

Does Seneca have a system of philosophy?

Seneca’s epistles to Lucilius in Letters from a Stoic represent a huge contribution to Stoic philosophy, filled with examples and aphorisms that illuminate both common life situations and a consistent “Stoic” attitude towards them. Can we say more than this? Is Seneca fundamentally an aphorist, or is he a philosopher with deep and extended theories and ideas? Is it fortune cookies or a tractatus, a mantra or a rich, textured, and open-ended philosophical program?

I’m tempted to think that it’s closer to the former rather than the latter of these pairs of dichotomies. There are flashes of insight on many aspects of ordinary life throughout the epistles, but they all reflect a fairly simple and consistent set of maxims: live simply, gain clarity about the values you truly espouse, don’t expect life to be kind, face adversity with equanimity and courage. These are simple ideas, perhaps not requiring the kinds of long and difficult debate and analysis familiar from philosophers like Plato, Hume, or Rousseau.

Consider a few topics that Seneca addresses — all topics that almost every human being must confront one day. Does Seneca offer “philosophy” with respect to these difficult existential moments?

Illness and hardship:

3. You ask me whether every good is desirable. You say: “If it is a good to be brave under torture, to go to the stake with a stout heart, to endure illness with resignation, it follows that these things are desirable. But I do not see that any of them is worth praying for. At any rate I have as yet known of no man who has paid a vow by reason of having been cut to pieces by the rod, or twisted out of shape by the gout, or made taller by the rack.” 4. My dear Lucilius, you must distinguish between these cases; you will then comprehend that there is something in them that is to be desired. I should prefer to be free from torture; but if the time comes when it must be endured, I shall desire that I may conduct myself therein with bravery, honour, and courage. Of course I prefer that war should not occur; but if war does occur, I shall desire that I may nobly endure the wounds, the starvation, and all that the exigency of war brings. Nor am I so mad as to crave illness; but if I must suffer illness, I shall desire that I may do nothing which shows lack of restraint, and nothing that is unmanly. The conclusion is, not that hardships are desirable, but that virtue is desirable, which enables us patiently to endure hardships. (book 67)

On planning:

There is an old adage about gladiators,—that they plan their fight in the ring; as they intently watch, something in the adversary’s glance, some movement of his hand, even some slight bending of his body, gives a warning. 2. We can formulate general rules and commit them to writing, as to what is usually done, or ought to be done; such advice may be given, not only to our absent friends, but also to succeeding generations. In regard, however, to that second question,—when or how your plan is to be carried out,—no one will advise at long range; we must take counsel in the presence of the actual situation. 3. You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity. (book 22)

Personal loss:

1. You desire to know whether Epicurus is right when, in one of his letters, he rebukes those who hold that the wise man is self-sufficient and for that reason does not stand in need of friendships. This is the objection raised by Epicurus against Stilbo and those who believe that the Supreme Good is a soul which is insensible to feeling. 2. We are bound to meet with a double meaning if we try to express the Greek term “lack of feeling” summarily, in a single word, rendering it by the Latin word impatientia. For it may be understood in the meaning the opposite to that which we wish it to have. What we mean to express is, a soul which rejects any sensation of evil; but people will interpret the idea as that of a soul which can endure no evil. Consider, therefore, whether it is not better to say “a soul that cannot be harmed,” or “a soul entirely beyond the realm of suffering.” 3. There is this difference between ourselves and the other school: our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their wise man does not even feel them. But we and they alike hold this idea,—that the wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself. 4. And mark how self-sufficient he is; for on occasion he can be content with a part of himself. If he lose a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left, taking as much pleasure in his impaired and maimed body as he took when it was sound. But while he does not pine for these parts if they are missing, he prefers not to lose them. 5. In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say “can,” I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity. (book 9)

The loss of friends by death:

4. Let us see to it that the recollection of those whom we have lost becomes a pleasant memory to us. No man reverts with pleasure to any subject which he will not be able to reflect upon without pain. So too it cannot but be that the names of those whom we have loved and lost come back to us with a sort of sting; but there is a pleasure even in this sting. 5. For, as my friend Attalus used to say: “The remembrance of lost friends is pleasant in the same way that certain fruits have an agreeably acid taste, or as in extremely old wines it is their very bitterness that pleases us. Indeed, after a certain lapse of time, every thought that gave pain is quenched, and the pleasure comes to us unalloyed.” 6. If we take the word of Attalus for it, “to think of friends who are alive and well is like enjoying a meal of cakes and honey; the recollection of friends who have passed away gives a pleasure that is not without a touch of bitterness. Yet who will deny that even these things, which are bitter and contain an element of sourness, do serve to arouse the stomach?” 7. For my part, I do not agree with him. To me, the thought of my dead friends is sweet and appealing. For I have had them as if I should one day lose them; I have lost them as if I have them still. (book 58)

Rational suicide:

Few have lasted through extreme old age to death without impairment, and many have lain inert, making no use of themselves. How much more cruel, then, do you suppose it really is to have lost a portion of your life, than to have lost your right to end that life? 35. Do not hear me with reluctance, as if my statement applied directly to you, but weigh what I have to say. It is this, that I shall not abandon old age, if old age preserves me intact for myself, and intact as regards the better part of myself; but if old age begins to shatter my mind, and to pull its various faculties to pieces, if it leaves me, not life, but only the breath of life, I shall rush out of a house that is crumbling and tottering. 36. I shall not avoid illness by seeking death, as long as the illness is curable and does not impede my soul. I shall not lay violent hands upon myself just because I am in pain; for death under such circumstances is defeat. But if I find out that the pain must always be endured, I shall depart, not because of the pain but because it will be a hindrance to me as regards all my reasons for living. He who dies just because he is in pain is a weakling, a coward; but he who lives merely to brave out this pain, is a fool. (book 58)

What are the threads raised by these short passages? Here are several: the priority of virtue over other desirable things; the propriety in preferring health over disease and affluence over penury, while recognizing that these goods are inconsequential in relation to virtue; the self-sufficiency of the soul; the rationality of endurance and equanimity; the lack of terror we should feel for death; the need for reflection about one’s reasons for living. And we might say that Seneca’s views on these questions add up to a philosophy of ethics, a philosophy of a life lived well, a contribution to phronesis (link). At the same time, it is striking that Seneca illustrates his philosophy through examples and discussion of hard cases, rather than a systematic exposition with labelled headings, principles, antinomies, unresolved issues, and sustained arguments. It more closely resembles the method of the sailing master who teaches his pupil about sailing by taking him or her on many trips, exposing the student to the hazards of the sea and the wind, than the method of a writer of handbooks on handling radioactive materials or washing machine repairs.

Katja Vogt has contributed an excellent article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Seneca that addresses the question of Seneca’s philosophical contributions squarely; link. She offers some sympathy for the idea that it is hard to identify an explicit philosophical theory in Seneca; but she suggests that this reflects a misunderstanding and misreading of Seneca.

Readers who approach Seneca as students of ancient philosophy—having acquired a certain idea of what philosophy is by studying Plato, Aristotle, or Chrysippus—often feel at a loss. To them, Seneca’s writings can appear lengthy and merely admonitory. Partly, this reaction may reflect prejudices of our training. The remnants of a Hegelian (and Nietzschean, and Heideggerean) narrative for philosophy are deeply ingrained in influential works of scholarship. On this account, the history of ancient philosophy is a history of decline, the Roman thinkers are mediocre imitators of their Greek predecessors, and so on (Long 2006; see Griffin 2018 for a collection of Griffin’s work on politics and philosophy in Rome). Such prejudices are hard to shake off; for many centuries watered-down versions of them have shaped the way students learnt Latin and Greek. In recent years, however, many scholars have come to adopt a different view. They find in Seneca a subtle author who speaks very directly to modern concerns of shaping ourselves and our lives.

Seneca does not write as a philosopher who creates or expounds a philosophical theory from the ground up. Rather, he writes within the track of an existing system that he is largely in agreement with. A reconstruction of Seneca’s philosophy, if it aimed at some kind of completeness, would have to be many-layered. At several points, it would have to include accounts of earlier Stoic philosophy, and discuss which aspects of these earlier theories become more or less prominent in Seneca’s thought. At times Seneca’s own contribution consists in developing further a Stoic theory and adding detail to it. At other times, Seneca dismisses certain technicalities and emphasizes the therapeutic, practical side of philosophy.

Seneca thinks of himself as the adherent of a philosophical system—Stoicism—and speaks in the first person plural (‘we’) in order to refer to the Stoics. Rather than call Seneca an orthodox Stoic, however, we might want to say that he writes within the Stoic system. Seneca emphasizes his independence as a thinker. He holds Stoic views, but he does not see himself as anyone’s disciple or chronicler.

Thus Vogt is unambiguous: Seneca is a fully-fledged philosopher; but he approaches the task of philosophy differently from the systematic theorizing found in other ancient philosophers. Nonetheless, she finds a developed philosophy in Seneca’s writings.

Vogt proposes that Seneca’s approach is more akin to therapy than to analytical theory-building: Seneca’s letters appear to be designed to help the reader recognize his own situation, his own virtues, the temptations of ordinary life that get in the way of good choices, and the navigation of impulse and self-direction that leads to “stoic” living in the face of challenges and misfortune. Vogt writes, “We need precisely what Seneca offers: someone who takes us through the various situations in life in which we tend to lose sight of our own insights, and fall victim to the allurements of money and fame, or to the violence of emotions evoked by the adversities of life.” And rather than providing didactic proofs of Stoic ethical principles, Vogt suggests that Seneca prefers that his friends and readers should “live and practice” those principles to make them their own: “it is important to think through the implications of the Stoic thesis in a variety of practical contexts, so as then to be able to live by it, for example, when one is or is not elected to office, has more or less money than others, and so on. One needs to think one’s way through these issues repeatedly—and ultimately, thinking about them in the right way must become a way of life.” And her implication is that Seneca advocates this “practical” stance towards ethics, not simply because it creates good habits, but because it ultimately validates and vindicates the rules or principles that are adopted.

Vogt spends a good deal of effort on the question of the classic Stoic doctrine of the “monism of the soul” and their dissolution of the emotions. Is the soul a unity or are there contending parts of the soul? Is there a non-rational component of the soul (e.g. the emotions) that opposes reason? Vogt tries to show that Seneca defends the idea that there is nothing in the soul but reason. But here is an interesting realization: when Seneca’s thought turns to this kind of highly abstract topic, it is substantially less compelling and interesting. The question of the unity of the soul seems like a scholastic question, leading to dogmatic philosophy. It is tempting to say that Aristotle’s view of psychology and the self is more immediate and “phenomenologically” accurate than the Stoic view: that the emotions are real, that they incline us to do things that reason would oppose, and that “self-control” is a real psychological state, requiring the person to recognize and manage his or her emotional impulses. So this element of Stoic philosophy perhaps fails the test of “offering genuine insight into the circumstances of human life”.

Another issue that Vogt finds to be both deep and crucial in Seneca’s philosophy is the distinction between the valuable and the good (mentioned in the first quotation above). In the category of the valuable she holds that Seneca includes health and wealth — these she characterizes as “preferred indifferents”; but only virtue is good. Further, according to Vogt, the attainment of “valuable” states such as good health, comfortable living circumstances, and accumulated wealth is completely irrelevant to happiness; only the pursuit of virtue contributes to happiness. Vogt doesn’t make this point, but it seems clear that this position stands in striking contradiction to the philosophy of Epicurus, for whom good health, friendships, decent conditions of life, and leisure are all components of a happy life. Here is Epicurus on prudence, the art of wise choices among desirable things (The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia):

Prudence is the principle of all these things and is the greatest good. That is why prudence is a more valuable thing than philosophy. For prudence is the source of all the other virtues, teaching that it is impossible to live pleasantly without living prudently, honourably, and justly, and impossible to live prudently, honourably, and justly without living pleasantly. For the virtues are natural adjuncts of the pleasant life and the pleasant life is inseparable from them. (31)

Running throughout Seneca’s epistles — and throughout Vogt’s treatment of his philosophy — is the theme of the importance of “case studies” and practical application of moral ideas, the application of philosophical ideas to complex situations. The implication is that it is the examination of cases rather than the discovery of convoluted principles that constitutes wisdom or insight, dissection of complexity rather than discovery of new moral laws. Seneca appears to believe that the hard work of philosophy is in the task of sorting out the details of particular life situations, and how to behave. Vogt writes, “As students of virtue, we will benefit from thinking our way through a variety of situations that one might encounter in life, contemplating how the different features of these situations matter to appropriate action, and so developing a sharpened sense of the particular value of the various things that do have value or disvalue for a human being.”

Parenthetically, there is an interesting convergence in Seneca’s philosophical style of exposition and some of John Dewey’s ideas about learning that were discussed in an earlier post (link). According to Vogt, Seneca wants to draw the reader along in the process of philosophical thinking — not to merely absorb a set of doctrines:

Seneca thinks that in order to benefit from philosophy, one cannot passively adopt insights. One must appropriate them as an active reader, thinking through the issues for oneself, so as then to genuinely assent to them (Letter 84.5–10; Wildberger 2006).

So what about the question posed above: does Seneca have a system of philosophy? I’m inclined to give a mixed answer. Seneca does in fact have a developed view of phronesis — a conception of what is involved in living a good human life. The opening paragraph above captures this conception reasonably well: live simply, gain clarity about the values you truly espouse, value virtue over other goods, don’t expect life to be kind, face adversity with equanimity and courage, do not fear death. This is indeed a philosophy of living. But it is a simple view of the human condition that doesn’t require elaborate philosophical theories and arguments. 

Second, I’m persuaded by Vogt’s splendid analysis that Seneca also shared a theory of metaphysics and theology with earlier Stoics, and this theory has many of the features of abstraction and logical analysis that we associate with philosophical theories. But those theories, to this reader anyway, do not seem especially important or consequential, and they have only a minor relationship to the theory of living well that Seneca advocates.

A brief Senecian reflection on the humble kidney stone

A kidney stone is an affliction. It is a source of pain, it makes sleep impossible, it is a misery that makes thought about anything else impossible. And its treatment is … dramatic. It is just the kind of life situation we humans are subject to. But we might shrug it off when it’s all over — it was just an illness, an incident in life’s long and fascinating series of disasters and joys.

It is worth thinking about the situation of the kidney stone a little more deeply. A kidney stone is often also a manifestation of lifelong habits, ways of daily living. Drinking too much coffee, drinking too little water every day — the slow invisible accumulation of calcium deep within the body, until it has the mass needed to block the flow of the body’s fluids and cause insistent pain. This is a disease (sometimes anyway) that stems from habit; it is not mere fate or inexplicable affliction. Live right and you won’t have a kidney stone — or at least you’ll be less likely to do so. 

And yet, for many of us — even knowing the connection between these simple habits and the possibility of pain and suffering in the future — we fail to adjust our habits. We continue, perhaps reasoning that each day’s 24 ounces of water rather than 64 will, by itself, cause no appreciable harm. It is a bodily tragedy of the commons. We are not very rational when it comes to calibrating everyday risks and longterm suffering. And the microscopic condensate deep in the kidney grows over time. I suppose the 8 mm. stone that suddenly causes blockage and pain and needs treatment took several years of silent accretion to become a risk; but it was forming throughout all that time.

I don’t know enough about the history of ancient medicine to be sure, but I doubt there was any effective way of addressing a kidney stone in the time of Seneca. Extended suffering and relatively quick necrosis of the kidney were the path forward; and the consolation of philosophy offered by Seneca is familiar. It is the counsel of courage and endurance: 

Nor am I so mad as to crave illness; but if I must suffer illness, I shall desire that I may do nothing which shows lack of restraint, and nothing that is unmanly. The conclusion is, not that hardships are desirable, but that virtue is desirable, which enables us patiently to endure hardships. (Letters from a Stoic, book 67)

There are two bits of philosophy that the fact of kidney stones in a human being suggests. First is the Seneca observation, that malady and misfortune are inevitable in life, and one must be prepared to face them with a degree of equanimity. “Fate will not spare you.” But the other bit is also important, and in my mind is more associated with the ideas about rationality over time offered in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. The happy person is the person who has orchestrated his or her life activities, from day to day, in ways that contribute to longterm wellbeing. Happiness means making choices on a daily basis that are guided by virtue and one’s fundamental values and goals. Translating this idea into the current context, a rational person will think carefully about his or her daily habits and the contributions they make to wellbeing or illness in the future. Drink more water, and no more akrasia!

Epicurean advertising?

image: Epicurus inscription at Oenoanda (credit Jack A. Waldron (link))

In The Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton offers an interesting observation concerning one of the sequels to Epicureanism — a massive public wall carving commissioned by Diogenes of Oenoanda (a small city in what is now Turkey). Diogenes of Oenoanda (not to be confused with the more famous Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in a wine barrel) was an Epicurean Greek philosopher of the second century AD, and his portico in the public market of Oenoanda was filled with thousands of quotations and texts from Epicurean philosophy (link). (Here are English translations of the existing fragments (link), and here is a very interesting blog post of a bicycle visit to the archeological materials of Oenoanda; link.) Botton describes the scene in these terms:

In the AD 120s, in the central market-place of Oinoanda, a town of 10,000 inhabitants in the south-western corner of Asia Minor, an enormous stone colonnade 80 metres long and nearly 4 metres high was erected and inscribed with Epicurean slogans for the attention of shoppers: 

“Luxurious foods and drinks … in no way produce freedom from harm and a healthy condition in the flesh.”

“One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing.”

“Real value is generated not by theatres and baths and perfumes and ointments … but by natural science.”

 The wall had been paid for by Diogenes, one of Oinoanda’s wealthiest citizens, who had sought, 400 years after Epicurus and his friends had opened the Garden in Athens, to share with his fellow inhabitants the secrets of happiness he had discovered in Epicurus’s philosophy. As he explained on one corner of the wall: ‘Having already reached the sunset of my life (being almost on the verge of departure from the world on account of old age), I wanted, before being overtaken by death, to compose a fine anthem to celebrate the fullness of pleasure and so to help now those who are well-constituted. Now, if only one person, or two or three or four or five or six … were in a bad predicament, I should address them individually … but as the majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and as their number is increasing (for in mutual emulation they catch the disease from each other, like sheep) … I wished to use this stoa to advertise publicly medicines that bring salvation.’ (67)

What is interesting to me — beyond the existence of the site itself — is Botton’s interpretation of the installation and the meaning that he attributes to it. Botton interprets this large 80 meter by 4 meter stone wall carving as a form of advertising on behalf of the benefits of Epicurean philosophy. This is a striking piece of historical writing, in large part because it juxtaposes a quintessentially modern activity (marketing and advertising) with ordinary life in the ancient world. But does the concept of “advertising” have any literal meaning in the ancient world? Surely it does not. The word “advertise” contained in the quotation from Diogenes (represented on the wall itself) seems to have the meaning simply to “publicize” or “draw attention to”. Here is the full passage of Diogenes’ statement in translation by the archeology team:

Having already reached the sunset of my life (being almost on the verge of departure from the world on account of old age), I wanted, before being overtaken by death, to compose a [fine] anthem [to celebrate the] fullness [of pleasure] and so to help now those who are well-constituted. Now, if only one person or two or three or four or five or six or any larger number you choose, sir, provided that it is not very large, were in a bad predicament, I should address them individually and do all in my power to give them the best advice. But, as I have said before, the majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and their number is increasing (for in mutual emulation they catch the disease from one another, like sheep) moreover, [it is] right to help [also] generations to come (for they too belong to us, though they are still unborn) and, besides, love of humanity prompts us to aid also the foreigners who come here. Now, since the remedies of the inscription reach a larger number of people, I wished to use this stoa to advertise publicly the [medicines] that bring salvation. These medicines we have put [fully] to the test; for we have dispelled the fears [that grip] us without justification, and, as for pains, those that are groundless we have completely excised, while those that are natural we have reduced to an absolute minimum, making their magnitude minute.

Our modern concept of advertising is not just about “public expression of an opinion.” Rather, it has everything to do with an extensive market economy, a consumer culture, and a social world in which persuasion and the shaping of tastes and wants is a developed professional activity. It has to do with deliberate efforts to market and sell a given product. In other words, “advertising” is a concept that invokes a complex social practice that depends on a set of social relations that did not exist in the second century of the common era. (Here is an earlier post on the invention of advertising in the twentieth century; link.)

But this suggests that Botton’s central interpretive point here is faulty: “To counteract the power of luxurious images Epicureans appreciated the importance of advertising” (67). This is surely false: it was no more possible for the Epicureans to “appreciate the importance of advertising” than they could understand chivalry, the trinity, or “socialism in one country”. The social relationships and semantic concepts upon which these ideas depend had not yet been invented. It is pure anachronism, a soft drink can left on the shooting set of an episode of Game of Thrones. Much safer, but less dramatic, would be to say something that clearly was true: “Epicureans appreciated the importance of persuading.” But Botton’s taste for striking phrases and images gets the better of him here; and as a result, he slips into bad historical interpretation.

Does philosophy offer consolation?

image: Martin Buber

Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy poses a bit of a puzzle. Why “consolations”? And why philosophy? How does philosophy come into the picture? For many professional philosophers from the past seventy-five years, the answer would be: not at all. Philosophy, in the analytic tradition anyway, is not concerned with the individual person’s subjective wellbeing, or the way she or he thinks about life’s challenges, disappointments, and tragedies, or the human predicament from the inside. So “consolation” isn’t part of the job at all. It’s hard to imagine Quine or Carnap thinking much about the topic, or even taking it seriously. And likewise, it’s hard to see Berkeley, Hume, or Kant engaging in this strand of conversation. But it isn’t hard to imagine a rich conversation on this general range of topics with with philosophers from other traditions and times — for example, Plato, Seneca, Montaigne, Ricoeur, Buber, or Levinas. We might think most broadly of a divide between the “underlaborers of science” view of philosophy (Locke) and the “interpreters of the human condition” view of philosophy (Socrates).

In fact, we need to recognize from the start that philosophy is not one unified thing. Carnap on the foundations of empirical knowledge is as intellectually distant from Martin Buber on the I-thou relationship as zoology is from organic chemistry. Philosophy is not defined by its etymology; philosophy is not “the discipline embodying the love of wisdom”. “Love of wisdom” does not define a unified discipline at all. The tradition of philosophy that derived most strongly from issues about the nature of empirical knowledge, and that eventually became philosophy of science and mathematics and the school of analytic philosophy, is profoundly different from the tradition woven around the moral realities of a human life — the examined life — from the ancients to Montaigne. Locke and Socrates are indeed miles apart — as are Ryle and Buber. Most categorically, we might say that they have nothing in common but the name.

Is there a term that could be used to encompass the approach to the kinds of reflections associated with Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, and Lucretius more adequately than simply “philosophy”? Perhaps there is — a term that also derives from ancient philosophy and plays a key role in Aristotle’s ethics. This is the concept of phronesis, or practical wisdom. In contrast to two other kinds of human knowledge identified by Aristotle (episteme and techne), phronesis has to do with “wisdom in the conduct of action”. Contemporary philosophy seems to be best understood as the lineal descendent of the study of episteme. This kind of philosophy already has a name; it is “epistemology”. If we understand the challenge of acting wisely as including the pursuit of a clear and justified understanding of one’s guiding values and purposes, then the study of phronesis would encompass the kind of self-reflection and deliberation characteristic of Socrates and Epicurus. So we might call it “phronesiology,” in analogy with “epistemology”. (Oddly enough, this word is already in use; look it up on Google!) This distinction permits a reconsideration of the branches of philosophy. The kind of examination of the genuine value of a human life well lived that is the central purpose of Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy and Status Envy has a very natural home in the family tree of philosophy; it is a developed theory of phronesis.

Consider this discussion of phronesis (practical wisdom) in Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, sect. 5:

Regarding practical wisdom we shall get at the truth by considering who are the persons we credit with it. Now it is thought to be the mark of a man of practical wisdom to be able to deliberate well about what is good and expedient for himself, not in some particular respect, e.g. about what sorts of thing conduce to health or to strength, but about what sorts of thing conduce to the good life in general. This is shown by the fact that we credit men with practical wisdom in some particular respect when they have calculated well with a view to some good end which is one of those that are not the object of any art. It follows that in the general sense also the man who is capable of deliberating has practical wisdom.

Here is a more specific passage in which Aristotle offers a specific analysis of the goods a person pursues (NE Book 1, sect. 1). Notice that it has much the same character as the reflections in which Botton, Epicurus, and Montaigne are engaged:

Further, men seem to pursue honour in order that they may be assured of their goodness; at least it is by men of practical wisdom that they seek to be honoured, and among those who know them, and on the ground of their virtue; clearly, then, according to them, at any rate, virtue is better. And perhaps one might even suppose this to be, rather than honour, the end of the political life. But even this appears somewhat incomplete; for possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and, further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy, unless he were maintaining a thesis at all costs. (Book 1, sect. 1)

Here Aristotle asks some fundamental questions: What do men pursue, what are the authentic goods towards which they should aim, and what are the merely instrumental goods? Further, Aristotle postulates that we can answer these kinds of questions through abstract, reasoned analysis and deliberation — or in common terms, “philosophy”.

Now we can understand better what Botton means by “philosophy”. Botton’s underlying premise is that there is an ancient tradition of reflective thinking focused on the human condition, from the individual subjective person’s point of view. This kind of philosophy raises questions of self-definition, self-awareness, an understanding of one’s position in the world, and the nature of the situations in the world that influence one’s aspirations, happiness, and satisfaction. For Botton, philosophy is about the human condition, in celebrations and moments of happiness, and in illness, disappointments, and death. And the philosophers whom Botton admires most are those who spent their lives taking seriously the question, what is it to be a human being? How should I live? This is the branch of philosophy that cares about reflection, self-definition, and critical assessment of one’s own life and the lives of others. Or using the term just introduced, it is “philosophy as phronesiology”. 

So what about “consolations”? What is it to be consoled? What is it to need consolation? Here is one interpretation: Consolation is part of a complex relationship between a person, his or her expectations of life, and a severe disappointment. It may be the tragic loss of a loved one, or being fired from one’s job, or having a really bad book review for a book one spent years writing. It is a shocking divergence between what one wants and what one unexpectedly gets. To be consoled is to be reconciled with a circumstance that seems horrible, unhappy, and impossible to accept. Reconciliation does not imply erasure of the bad event; rather, it implies coming to see that the event can somehow be incorporated within a broader understanding of the context. One’s phronesis can be broadened. And this seems to require something like a reorientation towards one’s expectations of life and the world. For example: We’ve arrived at the exotic luxury restaurant for a long-anticipated meal with a valued group of friends; but the restaurant is unexpectedly closed. We are deeply, profoundly disappointed. Consolation comes when we reflect on the source of our disappointment — the anticipation we had experienced of unforgettable conversation with special friends in the context of a unique gastronomic experience. We then readjust our thinking — the friends and conversation are still available to us, the gastronomy is a brief and fundamentally unimportant pleasure, and we can have our “dinner with Andre” at the Wendy’s down the road. As Botton demonstrates in the sad story of Marcia, mother of Metilius who died young, consolation may take the form of recognition that fate is haphazard and cruel; there is no meaning to a tragic death of a young person; and yet one’s grief must come to an end and one must live again (8).

So, once again, why philosophy? In what sense can “philosophy as phronesiology” lead to consolation? Botton suggests that there is a tradition of thought, encompassing Socrates, Diogenes, Epicurus, the Stoics, and others that provides something like an answer. If one has thought deeply and extensively about the human condition, the things one really values, the randomness of “luck”, the brevity of life — that is, if one has thought in the ways that Epicurus or Seneca reflected — then bad fortune, betrayal, the collapse of a business enterprise, and the loss of a loved one all have a place in one’s map of the nature of life. It is no more than magical thinking to wish that bad luck had not happened to me; it is in the nature of bad luck to strike without warning. Best prepared is the person who has recognized the possibility of bad luck, who has sorted out the goods that are genuinely important, and who has acted persistently with one’s talents and creativity to bring those goods to fruition during the time one is allotted. This person can be consoled by philosophy, or through philosophy.

Botton’s philosophy of life in the world

Image: Diogenes and his barrel

I’ve somehow missed reading any of the numerous books of philosophical reflections authored by Alain de Botton. They have often given me an impression of being written in a clever way for a literate audience, but without the heft of a Rawls or a Ricoeur. Now, with a copy of Status Anxiety to listen to through my Audible subscription, I’ve changed my mind. This book is very interesting, thought-provoking, and philosophically engaging.

The central topic is self-evaluation and its obverse — status anxiety. What do people live for? Is a person’s worth defined by her own internal standards and self-expectations? Or is she defined by the judgments of others? The perfectly self-defined person could not suffer from status anxiety, because he or she would set goals and assess his or her excellence by one’s own standards. The phenomenon of status anxiety can only arise when people define their worth in terms of the valuations that others place upon them. “If our position on the ladder is a matter of such concern, it is because our self-conception is so dependent upon what others make of us. Rare individuals aside (Socrates, Jesus), we rely on signs of respect from the world to feel tolerable to ourselves” (9). Botton’s special contribution here is his ability to consider the historical and social reality of “self-evaluation” and status envy through a wide knowledge of literature, economics, paintings, and philosophy. 

Along the way Botton lays the basis for some very critical thinking about consumerism, materialism, and lives structured around competition for the economic and social spoils of one’s environment. “Across the United States, new longings were created by the development of shopping malls, which enabled citizens to browse at all hours in climate-controlled environments. When the Southdale Mall opened in Minnesota in 1950, its advertising promised that “every day will be a perfect shopping day at Southdale” (28). This isn’t exactly a new insight; but Botton succeeds in making it poignant and existentially important. How much is enough? Can we live like Diogenes or Socrates? Is there a difference between our needs and our wants? Does the 2021 Porsche 911 Turbo S at $273,000 do a better job of moving its passengers from point A to point B than the humble 2021 Chevrolet Spark at $14,400? Is the Porsche 20 times better? And where, in the mindspace of the person who might purchase the Porsche, is there room for consideration of the needs of others, the future of the planet, or the nature of true contentment, compassion, and mortality?

Botton distills two triptychs of stories about the poor and the wealthy. 

  • The poor are not responsible for their condition and are the most useful in society
  • Low status has no moral connotation
  • The rich are sinful and corrupt and owe their wealth to their robbery of the poor

And the rich:

  • The rich are the useful ones, not the poor
  • Status does have moral connotations
  • The poor are sinful and corrupt and owe their poverty to their own stupidity

If one is poor, it matters very much which story one accepts. And if one is rich, a lot rides on bringing one of the last three stories to the top of mind of the public. The first batch of stories favors the dignity of the poor and derives often from the texts of humble Christianity, while the second favors the superiority of the rich and derives from the texts of eighteenth-century political economy and social darwinism. Botton draws out the ideological importance of the second batch of stories:

Such doctrines found a receptive audience among the self-made plutocrats who dominated American business and the American media. Social Darwinism provided them with an apparently unassailable scientific argument with which to rebut entities and isms that many of them were already suspicious of, not to mention threatened by on the economic level: trade unions, Marxism and socialism. On a triumphant tour of America in 1882, Spencer was cheered by gatherings of business leaders, who were flattered at being compared to the alpha beasts of the human jungle and relieved to be absolved of any need to feel guilty about or charitable towards their weaker brethren. (80)

There are a great many interesting factlets embedded in the book. Did you ever wonder what a “snob” is? Botton has the answer: “The word ‘snobbery’ came into use for the first time in England during the 1820s. It was said to have derived from the habit of many Oxford and Cambridge colleges of writing sine nobilitate (without nobility), or ‘s.nob,’ next to the names of ordinary students on examination lists in order to distinguish them from their aristocratic peers” (84). Or what, exactly, defined the literary genius of Jane Austen, whom Botton admires? It is because Austen looks behind the status-obsessed judgments of the aristocratic class, to the forms of human virtue and kindness that are rendered invisible by the categories of class, dress, and status. “The novel’s author takes a little longer than Mrs. Norris to make up her mind as to who is deficient, and in what capacity. For a decade or more, Austen follows Fanny patiently down the corridors and into the reception rooms of Mansfield Park; listens to her mutterings in her bedroom and on her walks around the gardens; reads her letters; eavesdrops on her observations about her adoptive family; watches the movements of her eyes and mouth; and peers into her soul. In the process, she picks up on a rare, quiet virtue of her heroine’s” (133). Austen sees the human being in Fanny, not the dress. And Botton notices a similar “seeing” in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and the apparent invisibility of the Bangladeshi waiter Samad in London. And if only the customers could see his inner thoughts: “I AM NOT A WAITER. I HAVE BEEN A STUDENT, A SCIENTIST, A SOLDIER, MY WIFE IS CALLED ALSANA, WE LIVE IN EAST LONDON BUT WE WOULD LIKE TO MOVE NORTH. I AM A MUSLIM BUT ALLAH HAS FORSAKEN ME OR I HAVE FORSAKEN ALLAH, I’M NOT SURE. I HAVE A FRIEND—ARCHIE—AND OTHERS. I AM FORTY-NINE BUT WOMEN STILL TURN IN THE STREET. SOMETIMES” (139). Again — the human being, not the apron. 

What does it all amount to, this lifelong struggle for recognition and “status”? Botton addresses this question through the final arbiter — death. In particular, he gives a fine reading of Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich, it turns out, lived for status, rank, and recognition — and it brought him nothing that could sustain him when his final illness and decline to extinction finally came. 

For his part, Ivan, with only a few weeks left to him, recognises that he has wasted his time on earth by leading an outwardly respectable but inwardly barren life. He scrolls back through his upbringing, education and career and finds that everything he has ever done has been motivated by the desire to appear important in the eyes of others, with his own interests and sensitivities always being sacrificed for the sake of impressing people who, he only now sees, do not care a jot for him. One night, as he lies awake in the early hours, racked by pain, “it occurred to him that those scarcely perceptible impulses of his to protest at what people of high status considered good, vague impulses which he had always suppressed, might have been precisely what mattered, and all the rest had not been the real thing. His official duties, his manner of life, his family, the values adhered to by people in society and in his profession—all these might not have been the real thing.” (227)

So what about Status Anxiety? Is this philosophy? Is it cultural commentary? Is it an interpretation of the human condition through a historical sampling of art, literature, economic tracts, and shopping malls? It’s a little bit of all of these things. But what appeals, most fundamentally, is that it raises the question, from many points of view, of what a valuable and well-lived human life really amounts to. 

Compare for a moment this book with the personal-reflective book of philosophy written in 1989 by the forever-young star of analytic philosophy, Robert Nozick, in The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations. Nozick wrote unflinchingly of illness and death in The Examined Life, and sadly died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 64. Here are the opening lines of Nozick’s book:

I want to think about living and what is important in life, to clarify my thinking — and also my life. Mostly we tend — I do too — to live on automatic pilot, following through the views of ourselves and the aims we acquired early, with only minor adjustments. No doubt there is some benefit–a gain in ambition or efficiency–in somewhat unthinkingly pursuing early aims in their relatively unmodified form, but there is a loss, too, when we are directed through life by the not fully mature picture of the world we formed in adolescence or young adulthood. (11)

Nozick’s book is striking for its honesty and occasionally for its insights. And the same can be said of Botton’s book. What is an “authentic” human life? Is “performance of a role” a dehumanizing act? These are questions that philosophers from Socrates and Aristotle to Sartre and Camus have found to be tremendously important and difficult, and Botton’s book stimulates fresh thinking from start to finish.


The publisher’s blurb for Status Anxiety seems designed to evoke exactly that initial impression that I have had in flipping through other titles by Botton — flip, clever, superficial: “Whether it’s assessing the class-consciousness of Christianity or the convulsions of consumer capitalism, dueling or home-furnishing, Status Anxiety is infallibly entertaining. And when it examines the virtues of informed misanthropy, art appreciation, or walking a lobster on a leash, it is not only wise but helpful.” Entertaining, amusing, and believe it or not — wise and helpful! What could be more of a turnoff for a person looking for some serious philosophical insights into something that matters! Lobsters on a leash, indeed!

Analytic philosophy of meaning and smart AI bots

One of the impulses of the early exponents of analytic philosophy was to provide strict logical simplifications of hitherto vague or indefinite ideas. There was a strong priority placed on being clear about the meaning of philosophical concepts, and more generally, about “meaning” in language simpliciter.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Rudolf Carnap’s The Logical Structure of the World and Pseudoproblems in Philosophy:

The present investigations aim to establish a “constructional system”, that is, an epistemic-logical system of objects or concepts. The word “object” is here always used in its widest sense, namely, for anything about which a statement can be made. Thus, among objects we count not only things, but also properties and classes, relations in extension and intension, states and events, what is actual as well as what is not. Unlike other conceptual systems, a constructional system undertakes more than the division of concepts into various kinds and the investigation of the differences and mutual relations between these kinds. In addition, it attempts a step-by-step derivation or “construction” of all concepts from certain fundamental concepts, so that a genealogy of concepts results in which each one has its definite place. It is the main thesis of construction theory that all concepts can in this way be derived from a few fundamental concepts, and it is in this respect that it differs from most other ontologies. (Carnap 1928 [1967]: 5)

But the idea of absolute, fundamental clarity about the meanings of words and concepts has proven to be unattainable. Perhaps more striking, it is ill conceived. Meanings are not molecules that can be analyzed into their unchanging components. Consider Wittgenstein’s critique of the project of providing a “constructional system” of the meaning of language in the Philosophical Investigations:

12. It is like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. There are handles there, all looking more or less alike. (This stands to reason, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank, which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two operative positions: it is either off or on; a third is the handle of a brakelever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder the braking; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro.

Here Wittgenstein’s point, roughly, is that it is a profound philosophical error to expect a single answer to the question, how does language work? His metaphor of the locomotive cabin suggests that language works in many ways — to describe, to denote, to command, to praise, or to wail and moan; and it is an error to imagine that all of this diverse set of uses should be reducible to a single thing.

Or consider Paul Grice’s theory of meaning in terms of intentions and conversational implicatures. His theory of meaning considers language in use: what is the point of an utterance, and what presuppositions does it make? If a host says to a late-staying dinner guest, “You have a long drive home”, he or she might be understood to be making a Google-maps kind of factual statement about the distance between “your current location” and “home”. But the astute listener will hear a different message: “It’s late, I’m sleepy, there’s a lot of cleaning up to do, it’s time to call it an evening.” There is an implicature in the utterance that depends upon the context, the normal rules of courtesy (“Don’t ask your guests to leave peremptorily!”), and the logic of indirection. The meaning of the utterance is: “I’m asking you courteously to leave.” Here is a nice description of Grice’s theory of “meaning as use” in Richard Grandy and Richard Warner’s article on Grice in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link).

This approach to meaning invites a distinction between “literal” meaning and “figurative” or contextual meaning, and it suggests that algorithmic translation is unlikely to succeed for many important purposes. On Grice’s approach, we must also understand the “subtext”.

Hilary Putnam confronted the question of linguistic meaning (semantics) directly in 1975 in his essay “The meaning of ‘meaning'” (link). Putnam questions whether “meaning” is a feature of the psychological state of an individual user of language; are meanings “mental” entities; and he argues that they are not. Rather, meanings depend upon a “social division of labor” in which the background knowledge required to explicate and apply a term is distributed over a group of experts and quasi-experts.

A socio-linguistic hypothesis. The last two examples depend upon a fact about language that seems, surprisingly, never to have been pointed out: that there is division of linguistic labor. ‘Ve could hardly use such words as “elm” and “aluminum” if no one possessed a way of recognizing elm trees and aluminum metal; but not everyone to whom the distinction is important has to be able to make the distinction. (144

Putnam links his argument to the philosophical concepts of sense and reference. The reference (or extension) of a term is the set of objects to which the term refers; and the sense of the term is the set of mental features accessible to the individual that permits him or her to identify the referent of the term. But Putnam offers arguments about hypothetical situations that are designed to show that two individuals may be in identical psychological states with respect to a concept X, but may nonetheless identify different referents or extensions of X. “We claim that it is possible for two speakers to be in exactly the same psychological state (in the narrow sense), even though the extension of the term A in the idiolect of the one is different from the extension of the term A in the idiolect of the other. Extension is not determined by psychological state” (139).

A second idea that Putnam develops here is independent from this point about the socially distributed knowledge needed to identify the extension of a concept. This is his suggestion that we might try to understand the meaning of a noun as being the “stereotype” that competent language users have about that kind of thing.

In ordinary parlance a “stereotype” is a conventional (frequently malicious) idea (which may be wildly inaccurate) of what an X looks like or acts like or is. Obviously, I am trading on some features of the ordinary parlance. I am not concerned with malicious stereotypes (save where the language itself is malicious); but I am concerned with conventional ideas, which may be inaccurate. I am suggesting that just such a conventional idea is associated with “tiger,” with “gold,” etc., and, . moreover, that this is the sole element of truth in the “concept” theory. (169)

Here we might summarize the idea of a thing-stereotype as a cluster of beliefs about the thing that permits conversation to get started. “I’m going to tell you about glooples…” “I’m sorry, what do you mean by “gloople”?” “You know, that powdery stuff that you put in rice to make it turn yellow and give it a citrous taste.” Now we have an idea of what we’re talking about; a gloople is a bit of ground saffron. But of course this particular ensemble of features might characterize several different spices — cumin as well as saffron, say — in which case we do not actually know what is meant by “gloople” for the speaker. This is true; there is room for ambiguity, misunderstanding, and misidentification in the kitchen — but we have a place to start the conversation about the gloople needed for making the evening’s curry. And, as Putnam emphasizes in this essay and many other places, we are aided by the fact that there are “natural kinds” in the world — kinds of thing that share a fixed inner nature and that can be reidentified in different settings. This is where Putnam’s realism intersects with his theory of meaning.

What is interesting about this idea about the meaning of a concept term is that it makes the meaning of a concept or term inherently incomplete and corrigible. We do not offer “necessary and sufficient conditions” for applying the concept of gloople, and we are open to discussion about whether the characteristic taste is really “citrous” or rather more like vinegar. This line of thought — a more pragmatic approach to concept meaning — seems more realistic and more true to actual communicative practice than the sparse logical neatness of the first generation of logical positivists and analytic philosophers.

Here is how Putnam summarizes his analysis in “The Meaning of “Meaning””:

Briefly, my proposal is to define “meaning” not by picking out an object which will be identified with the meaning (although that might be done in the usual set-theoretic style if one insists), but by specifying a normal form (or, rather, a type of normal form) for the description of meaning. If we know what a “normal form description” of the meaning of a word should be, then, as far as I am concerned, we know what meaning is in any scientifically interesting sense.

My proposal is that the normal form description of the meaning of a word should be a finite sequence, or “vector,” whose components should certainly include the following (it might be desirable to have other types of components as well): ( 1) the syntactic markers that apply to the word, e.g., “noun”; (2) the semantic markers that apply to the word, e.g., “animal,” “period of time”; ( 3) a description of the additional features of the stereotype, if any; ( 4) a description of the extension. (190)

Rereading this essay after quite a few years, what is striking is that it seems to offer three rather different theories of meaning: the “social division of labor” theory, the stereotype theory, and the generative semantics theory. Are they consistent? Or are they alternative approaches that philosophers and linguists can take in their efforts to understand ordinary human use of language?

There is a great deal of diversity of approach, then, in the ways that analytical philosophers have undertaken to explicate the question of the meaning of language. And the topic — perhaps unlike many in philosophy — has some very important implications and applications. In particular, there is an intersection between “General artificial intelligence” research and the philosophy of language: If we want our personal assistant bots to be able to engage in extended and informative conversations with us, AI designers will need to have useable theories of the representation of meaning. And those representations cannot be wholly sequential (Markov chain) systems. If Alexa is to be a good conversationalist, she will need to be able to decode complex paragraphs like this, and create a meaningful “to-do” list of topics that need to be addressed in her reply.

Alexa, I was thinking about my trip to Milan last January, where I left my umbrella. Will I be going back to Milan soon? Will it rain this afternoon? Have I been to Lombardy in the past year? Do I owe my hosts at the university a follow-up letter on the discussions we had? Did I think I might encounter rain in my travels to Europe early in the year?

Alexa will have a tough time with this barrage of thoughts. She can handle the question about today’s weather. But how should her algorithms handle the question about what I thought about the possibility of rain during my travels last January? I had mentioned forgetting my umbrella in Milan; that implies I had taken an umbrella; and that implies that I thought there was a possibility of rain. But Alexa is not good at working out background assumptions and logical relationships between sentences. Or in Gricean terms, Alexa doesn’t get conversational implicatures.

Luca Gasparri and Diego Marconi provide a very interesting article on “Word Meaning” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link) that allows the reader to see where theories of meaning have gone in philosophy, linguistics, and cognitive science since the 1970s. For example, linguists have developed a compositional theory of word meaning:

The basic idea of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach (henceforth, NSM; Wierzbicka 1972, 1996; Goddard & Wierzbicka 2002) is that word meaning is best described through the combination of a small set of elementary conceptual particles, known as semantic primes. Semantic primes are primitive (i.e., not decomposable into further conceptual parts), innate (i.e., not learned), and universal (i.e., explicitly lexicalized in all natural languages, whether in the form of a word, a morpheme, a phraseme, and so forth). According to NSM, the meaning of any word in any natural language can be defined by appropriately combining these fundamental conceptual particles. (36)

This approach is strikingly similar to that described in the Carnap passage above, in that it attempts to decompose meanings of complex concepts into “atoms” of meaning.

Some research on language in computer science and artificial intelligence has been striking and surprising. For example, OpenAI’s GT3 natural language text producer, grounded in massive machine learning on billions of pages of text, creates text that appears to be conversational and intelligent — without a milligram of meaning (link). Here is a short (two paragraph) piece of philosophy text about freedom of speech, generated purely mechanically by Arram Sabeti using GT3 as a demonstration of the capabilities of GT3 (link):

There’s a concept that comes up often in debates about free speech called “shouting fire in a crowded theater”. The basic idea is that you can’t just say whatever you want whenever you want – especially if it’s likely to cause panic. And the reason for this is obvious: panic leads to violence, and violence hurts people. If you are causing panic, then your right to free speech ends where the other person’s right to not get hurt begins.
But this isn’t really true. If shouting fire in a crowded theater were illegal, then there wouldn’t be any actual fires in theaters, would there? How could there be? If everyone knew that shouting fire would get them thrown in jail, then they’d all keep quiet when they smelled smoke – and thus there would never be any fires at all. The only way someone could shout fire is if they were lying – but lying is also illegal. So if shouting fire in a crowded theater were illegal, then theaters would never burn down, and no one would ever die from a fire.

The way I see it, the phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” should be replaced with “yelling ‘there’s an angry mob coming with torches and pitchforks’ in a theater”. This doesn’t sound quite as catchy, but it has the advantage of being true. And this matters because the whole concept of free speech is based on people getting the facts right. If you’re going to shout fire in a crowded theater, then you need to actually have seen a fire – not just heard about one from someone else. You need to have checked that there really is a fire before you warn everyone else that there’s a fire. Otherwise you’re just causing panic for no reason – and that’s not free speech, that’s just yelling “boo” in a crowded theater.

The passage is no argument at all — no guiding intelligence, and obvious non-sequiturs from one sentence to another. The first four sentences make sense. But then the next several sentences are nonsensical and illogical. In sentence 5 — what “isn’t really true”? Sentence 6 is flatly illogical. In fact, it is as illogical as Trump’s insistence that if we had less testing then there would be less COVID in the United States. And the statement, “… but lying is also illegal” — no, it’s not. The bot is misinformed about the law. Or more precisely: these are just words and phrases strung together algorithmically with no logical construction or understanding guiding the statements. And the second paragraph has the same features. It is kind of entertaining to see the logical flaws of the text; but maybe there is an important underlying discovery as well: machine learning cannot create or discover rules of logic that allow for argument and deduction. The passage is analogous to Noam Chomsky’s example of a syntactically correct but semantically meaningless sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. This GT3 text is syntactically correct from phrase to phase, but lacks the conceptual or logical coherence of a meaningful set of thoughts. And it seems pretty clear that the underlying approach is a dead end when it comes to the problem of natural language comprehension.

A big-data contribution to the history of philosophy

The history of philosophy is generally written by subject experts who explore and follow a tradition of thought about which figures and topics were “pivotal” and thereby created an ongoing research field. This is illustrated, for example, in Stephen Schwartz’s A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: From Russell to Rawls. Consider the history of Anglophone philosophy since 1880 as told by a standard narrative in the history of philosophy of this period. One important component was “logicism” — the idea that the truths of mathematics can be derived from purely logical axioms using symbolic logic. Peano and Frege formulated questions about the foundations of arithmetic; Russell and Whitehead sought to carry out this program of “logicism”; and Gödel proved the impossibility of carrying out this program: any set of axioms rich enough to derive theorems of arithmetic is either incomplete or inconsistent. This narrative serves to connect the dots in this particular map of philosophical development. We might want to add details like the impact of logicism on Wittgenstein and the impact of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but the map is developed by tracing contacts from one philosopher to another, identifying influences, and aggregating groups of topics and philosophers into “schools”.

Brian Weatherson, a philosopher at the University of Michigan, has a different idea about how we might proceed in mapping the development of philosophy over the past century (link) (Brian Weatherson, A History of Philosophy Journals: Volume 1: Evidence from Topic Modeling, 1876-2013. Vol. 1. Published by author on Github, 2020; link). Professional philosophy in the past century has been primarily expressed in the pages of academic journals. So perhaps we can use a “big data” approach to the problem of discovering and tracking the emergence of topics and fields within philosophy by analyzing the frequency and timing of topics and concepts as they appear in academic philosophy journals.

Weatherson pursues this idea systematically. He has downloaded from JSTOR the full contents of twelve leading journals in anglophone philosophy for the period 1876-2013, producing a database of some 32,000 articles and lists of all words appearing in each article (as well as their frequencies). Using the big data technique called “topic modeling” he has arrived at 90 subjects (clusters of terms) that recur in these articles. Here is a quick description of topic modeling.

Topic modeling is a type of statistical modeling for discovering the abstract “topics” that occur in a collection of documents. Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) is an example of topic model and is used to classify text in a document to a particular topic. It builds a topic per document model and words per topic model, modeled as Dirichlet distributions. (link)

Here is Weatherson’s description of topic modeling:

An LDA model takes the distribution of words in articles and comes up with a probabilistic assignment of each paper to one of a number of topics. The number of topics has to be set manually, and after some experimentation it seemed that the best results came from dividing the articles up into 90 topics. And a lot of this book discusses the characteristics of these 90 topics. But to give you a more accessible sense of what the data looks like, I’ll start with a graph that groups those topics together into familiar contemporary philosophical subdisciplines, and displays their distributions in the 20th and 21st century journals. (Weatherson, introduction)

Now we are ready to do some history. Weatherson applies the algorithms of LDA topic modeling to this database of journal articles and examines the results. It is important to emphasize that this method is not guided by the intuitions or background knowledge of the researcher; rather, it algorithmically groups documents into clusters based on the frequencies of various words appearing in the documents. Weatherson also generates a short list of keywords for each topic: words of a reasonable frequency in which the probability of the word appearing in articles in the topic is significantly greater than the probability of it occurring in a random article. And he further groups the 90 subjects into a dozen familiar “categories” of philosophy (History of Philosophy, Idealism, Ethics, Philosophy of Science, etc.). This exercise of assigning topics to categories requires judgment and expertise on Weatherson’s part; it is not algorithmic. Likewise, the assignment of names to the 90 topics requires expertise and judgment. From the point of view of the LDA model, the topics could be given entirely meaningless names: T1, T2, …, T90.

Now every article has been assigned to a topic and a category, and every topic has a set of keywords that are algorithmically determined. Weatherson then goes back and examines the frequency of each topic and category over time, presented as graphs of the frequencies of each category in the aggregate (including all twelve journals) and singly (for each journal). The graphs look like this:

We can look at these graphs as measures of the rise and fall of prevalence of various fields of philosophy research in the Anglophone academic world over the past century. Most striking is the contrast between idealism (precipitous decline since 1925) and ethics (steady increase in frequency since about the same time, but each category shows some interesting characteristics.

Now consider the disaggregation of one topic over the twelve journals. Weatherson presents the results of this question for all ninety topics. Here is the set of graphs for the topic “Methodology of Science”:

All the journals — including Ethics and Mind — have articles classified under the topic of “Methodology of Science”. For most journals the topic declines in frequency from roughly the 1950s to 2013. Specialty journals in the philosophy of science — BJPS and Philosophy of Science — show a generally higher frequency of “Methodology of Science” articles, but they too reveal a decline in frequency over that period. Does this suggest that the discipline of the philosophy of science declined in the second half of the twentieth century (not the impression most philosophers would have)? Or does it rather reflect the fact that the abstract level of analysis identified by the topic of “Methodology of Science” was replaced with more specific and concrete studies of certain areas of the sciences (biology, psychology, neuroscience, social science, chemistry)?

These results permit many other kinds of questions and discoveries. For example, in chapter 7 Weatherson distills the progression of topics across decades by listing the most popular five topics in each decade:

This table too presents intriguing patterns and interesting questions for further research. For example, from the 1930s through the 1980s a topic within the general field of the philosophy of science is in the list of the top five topics: methodology of science, verification, theories and realism. These topics fall off the list in the 1990s and 2000s. What does this imply — if anything — about the prominence or importance of the philosophy of science within Anglophone philosophy in the last several decades? Or as another example — idealism is the top-ranked topic from the 1890s through the 1940s, only disappearing from the list in the 1960s. This is surprising because the standard narrative would say that idealism was vanquished within philosophy in the 1930s. And another interesting example — ordinary language. Ordinary language is a topic on the top five list for every decade, and is the most popular topic from the 1950s through the present. And yet “ordinary language philosophy” would generally be thought to have arisen in the 1940s and declined permanently in the 1960s. Finally, topics in the field of ethics are scarce in these lists; “promises and imperatives” is the only clear example from the topics listed here, and this topic appears only in the 1960s and 1970s. That seems to imply that the fields of ethics and social-political philosophy were unimportant throughout this long sweep of time — hard to reconcile with the impetus given to substantive ethical theory and theory of justice in the 1960s and 1970s. For that matter, the original list of 90 topics identified by the topic-modeling algorithm is surprisingly sparse when it comes to topics in ethics and political philosophy: 2.16 Value, 2.25 Moral Conscience, 2.31 Social Contract Theory, 2.33 Promises and Imperatives, 2.41 War, 2.49 Virtues, 2.53 Liberal Democracy, 2.53 Duties, 2.65 Egalitarianism, 2.70 Medical Ethics and Freud, 2.83 Population Ethics, 2.90 Norms. Where is “Justice” in the corpus?

Above I described this project as a new approach to the history of philosophy (surely applicable as well to other fields such as art history, sociology, or literary criticism). But it seems clear that the modeling approach Weatherson pursues is not a replacement for other conceptions of intellectual history, but rather a highly valuable new source of data and questions that historians of philosophy will want to address. And in fact, this is how Weatherson treats the results of this work: not as replacement but rather as a supplement and a source of new puzzles for expert historians of philosophy.

(There is an interesting parallel between this use of big data and the use of Ngrams, the tool Google created to map the frequency of the occurrences of various words in books over the course of several centuries. Here are several earlier posts on the use of Ngrams: linklink. Gabriel Abend made use of this tool in his research on the history of business ethics in The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics. Here is a discussion of Abend’s work; link. The topic-modeling approach is substantially more sophisticated because it does not reduce to simple word frequencies over time. As such it is a very significant and innovative contribution to the emerging field of “digital humanities” (link).)

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